Playing Panic or Patience on MLB's Least Active Contenders This Offseason
Nothing raises the ire of a fanbase during the offseason more than inactivity.
It's hard to get excited about a Rule 5 selection or a non-roster invitee when other teams are spending millions of dollars on established MLB talent and filling roster holes left and right.
Of course, recent seasons have proved that a loud winter does not guarantee success during the upcoming season.
Just ask the 2015 San Diego Padres.
It's also only the middle of December, so there's plenty of time for an inactive team to make a splash before the offseason ends.
With that in mind, the following is a look at five potential contenders that have been largely inactive so far this offseason, and whether it's time for panic or patience with regard to their offseason approach based on remaining roster holes, salary flexibility and the rumor mill.
Key Losses: RF Mark Trumbo, C Matt Wieters, DH Pedro Alvarez, OF Michael Bourn, OF Nolan Reimold
Key Additions: C Welington Castillo, SP/RP Logan Verrett, OF Adam Brett Walker, OF Aneury Tavarez
The Baltimore Orioles have found a new starting catcher, signing Welington Castillo to a one-year, $6 million deal that includes a $7 million player option for 2018.
That's about all they've done this offseason, though.
Mutual interest in a reunion with slugger Mark Trumbo failed to advance beyond the two sides' agreeing to a four-year framework, and the Orioles have now taken their offer off the table, according to Roch Kubatko of MASNsports.com.
Joey Rickard stands as the best in-house option to take over in right field. He was a nice story as a Rule 5 pick that stuck, but a .696 OPS and minus-0.5 WAR over 282 plate appearances is a clear indication he belongs in a bench role.
For a team that relies heavily on the long ball, replacing Trumbo and designated hitter Pedro Alvarez—who combined for 69 home runs last year—with Rickard and an unproven rookie like Trey Mancini or Adam Brett Walker simply won't cut it.
Then there's the starting rotation, a group that ranked 24th in the majors with a 4.72 ERA last season and was universally identified as the team's biggest weakness.
Despite that mediocrity, the front office appears content to head into 2017 with the same stable of arms.
"Our starting pitching is all right going into the season. They've all won more than they've lost over the course of their career. We have six starters going in, which is something we haven't had," general manager Dan Duquette told Brittany Ghiroli of MLB.com at the start of the offseason.
Whatever you say, Dan.
The comments on the starting rotation alone should be enough to make O's fans squirm. Even if they bring back Trumbo or find a suitable replacement, it's hard to see this team as anything beyond a fringe contender without an improved staff.
Key Losses: 1B Mike Napoli, OF Rajai Davis, RP Jeff Manship, OF Coco Crisp
Key Additions: RP Hoby Milner, RP Edwin Escobar
With an intact and fully healthy starting rotation—Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar were non-factors during the postseason—and All-Star outfielder Michael Brantley finally expected to be healthy, an argument can be made that the Cleveland Indians are already a better team than the one we saw in October.
First baseman Mike Napoli and outfielder Rajai Davis are the two major contributors the team stands to lose from last year's club, and the front office expressed at least some level of interest in a reunion with both veterans.
"Both for Raj and Mike, we expressed our desire to potentially have them back. And we recognize they both have alternatives, based on the years that they had, but we're certainly open to exploring different ways where both of them could be back here," team president Chris Antonetti told Jordan Bastian of MLB.com.
The return of Brantley and expected arrival of top prospect Bradley Zimmer makes bringing back Davis more of a luxury than a necessity, but Napoli is a different story.
The 35-year-old was one of the driving forces in the middle of the lineup, posting an .800 OPS with 34 home runs and a team-high 101 RBI on a one-year, $7 million deal.
There's no in-house option to replace him, and even if Brantley returns to his pre-injury form and picks up some of the run-production load, there is still a hole at first base.
According to Buster Olney of ESPN.com, Napoli is seeking a three-year deal, while the Indians prefer to keep things to a one-year pact once again.
Meanwhile, the Tribe has also been linked to the likes of Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista and Mark Trumbo as alternatives should Napoli sign elsewhere, per Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports.
The Indians are never big spenders in free agency, with the four-year, $56 million contract they gave Nick Swisher prior to the 2013 season still the largest free-agent deal in team history.
If ever there was a time to go all-in, though, it's now.
There are still several players available who would offer the Indians the right-handed power bat they need, and they've done their due diligence feeling out the market. That's the only clear void on the roster, and it should be only a matter of time before they add someone.
Kansas City Royals
Key Losses: RP Wade Davis, DH Kendrys Morales, SP Edinson Volquez, SP Kris Medlen, RP Luke Hochevar
Key Additions: OF Jorge Soler
The Kansas City Royals began the offseason with a clear warning that the team was spending beyond its means last season and payroll would "regress a little bit" for the upcoming season.
"We're going to have to look internally and [in] trades," GM Dayton Moore told reporters. "We won't be adding money. That's for darn sure."
Closer Wade Davis, and his $10 million salary, was the first casualty. Kansas City shipped him to the Chicago Cubs during the winter meetings for a controllable power bat with considerable upside in Jorge Soler.
The question now: Where do the Royals go from here?
The answer so far: They're not sure.
Healthy seasons from Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas could go a long way toward improving an offense that ranked 23rd in the majors with 4.17 runs per game, and the bullpen has a suitable replacement for Davis in hard-throwing Kelvin Herrera.
However, if this team has any hopes of contending in 2017, the starting rotation needs help.
Danny Duffy and Ian Kennedy are both quality arms, but neither profiles as a true ace. Yordano Ventura was wildly disappointing once again, Jason Vargas made just three starts after finally returning from Tommy John surgery and the veteran duo of Mike Minor and Chris Young shouldn't be trusted with anything more than bullpen spots.
Rookie Matt Strahm is a potential X-factor after pitching well out of the bullpen (21 G, 1.23 ERA, 12.3 K/9), but it's hard to imagine he'll single-handedly turn around a rotation that ranked 22nd in ERA (4.67) and 21st in quality starts (68).
If the team doesn't think it can contend in 2017, the future still needs to be addressed.
Cain, Moustakas, Duffy and first baseman Eric Hosmer are all set to reach free agency next offseason, and the team can't afford to keep all four.
The team has opened extension talks with Duffy, per Jeffrey Flanagan of MLB.com, but his name has also been floated in trade rumors, so it's unclear what the plan is for any of those core pieces.
There are some smart minds in that Kansas City front office, and they find themselves at a clear crossroads this winter.
The window to contend appears to have slammed shut on the Royals as quickly as it opened. That's life when you're a small-market team. Conceding that contention is unlikely in 2017 and hoping guys like Cain and Moustakas can rebuild enough value to bring a decent haul at the trade deadline might be their best move.
Key Losses: SP Ivan Nova, RP Neftali Feliz, UT Sean Rodriguez, OF Matt Joyce, SP Jeff Locke, C Eric Fryer
Key Additions: RP Tyler Webb, RP Lisalverto Bonilla, RP Brady Dragmire
A compelling case can be made that the Pittsburgh Pirates were the most disappointing team of 2016.
After a 98-win season and a third consecutive playoff appearance the previous season, expectations were high, but when the dust settled, the Pirates sat at 78-83 and well out of contention in the NL Central.
What's next for a team that finally got a taste of winning after two decades of losing?
It appears an influx of young talent is coming.
Josh Bell is set to take over as the starting first baseman, and Alen Hanson seems to have the upper hand to replace Sean Rodriguez in the utility role, but it's the pitching side of things that will really be reliant on young talent.
The average age of the Pittsburgh Pirates' projected starting rotation of Gerrit Cole (26), Jameson Taillon (25), Chad Kuhl (24), Steven Brault (24) and Tyler Glasnow (23) is 24.4 years old.
Cole will need to rebound from an injury-plagued season, while the four youngsters behind him have a combined 43 MLB starts to their credit.
There's a bit more experience on the staff if Drew Hutchison (26) can win a rotation spot or Juan Nicasio (30) gets a chance to start again, but it's still fair to say adding a veteran presence would be beneficial.
No one has been better at hitting on low-cost reclamation projects in recent seasons, thanks in large part to pitching coach Ray Searage, but the Pirates haven't added anyone who fits that mold this winter.
The bullpen also needs help, specifically from the right side after Neftali Feliz departed in free agency and Pittsburgh traded both Mark Melancon and Arquimedes Caminero last season.
Then there's the matter of making face of the franchise Andrew McCutchen feel loved after he was nearly traded to the Washington Nationals.
Moving him with two years of control remaining still makes sense, but he'll need to rebuild some value after a down season if they're going to find someone willing to meet their asking price.
Looking at the big picture, the Pirates' only hope for sustained success is to continue to filter homegrown talent into the mix at the MLB level. There's too much talent on this roster to go with a full-blown youth movement, though.
They can bolster the pitching staff without breaking the bank, and they should have money to spend after unloading Francisco Liriano at the trade deadline. Otherwise, what was the point of that trade?
Few teams pinch pennies like the Pirates, and after hitting on guys like Matt Joyce, David Freese and Neftali Feliz last offseason, they seem content to pick up whatever scraps remain on the free-agent pile as spring training approaches.
The future is still bright with so much high-end young talent, but it doesn't look like much help is coming for 2017.
Toronto Blue Jays
Key Losses: DH Edwin Encarnacion, RF Jose Bautista, LF Michael Saunders, RP Brett Cecil, RP Joaquin Benoit, C Dioner Navarro, RP Scott Feldman
Key Additions: DH Kendrys Morales, IF/OF Steve Pearce, IF Lourdes Gurriel, RP Glenn Sparkman, RP Leonel Campos, RP Dominic Leone
The Toronto Blue Jays reached the postseason in 2015 on the strength of a juggernaut offense that averaged 5.50 runs per game and scored 127 more runs than any other team.
While that dipped to 4.69 runs per game this past season—good for ninth in the majors—they were arguably a better team, as the starting rotation became the strength of the roster.
Offseason addition J.A. Happ emerged as a legitimate Cy Young candidate, and Aaron Sanchez flourished in his first full season as a starter, alongside Marco Estrada, Marcus Stroman and R.A. Dickey.
All told, the Blue Jays ranked fourth in the majors and first in the AL with a 3.64 starters' ERA, and their 100 quality starts tied with the Chicago Cubs for most in baseball.
Could that shift in team strength be playing a role in what has been a relatively quiet offseason?
The dynamic duo of Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista entered free agency, along with All-Star outfielder Michael Saunders, so there are significant holes to fill in the lineup.
Toronto signed Kendrys Morales to a three-year deal to replace Encarnacion, and while he's been a productive run producer in recent years, that's a clear downgrade.
The only other notable addition to the lineup has been versatile veteran Steve Pearce, who figures to see some platoon work with Justin Smoak at first base as well as time at the corner outfield spots.
A middle of the order of Josh Donaldson-Kendrys Morales-Troy Tulowitzki-Russell Martin looks considerably less intimidating for opposing pitchers.
The bullpen also needs reinforcements after longtime setup man Brett Cecil joined the St. Louis Cardinals and deadline pickup Joaquin Benoit signed with the Philadelphia Phillies.
Jason Grilli is back as a capable setup option for closer Roberto Osuna, and Rule 5 success story Joe Biagini returns as well, but the rest of the relief corps is a question mark.
It's a considerable amount of roster turnover for a team that has made significant strides toward contending for a title in recent years. What the Blue Jays do over the next couple months will ultimately determine if they're a fringe contender or a legitimate title threat.
An improved pitching staff lessens the reliance on offense, and the Blue Jays undoubtedly have money to spend shoring up a corner outfield spot and adding a few bullpen pieces. Everyone will be chasing the Red Sox, but Toronto still looks to have as good a chance as anyone—outside of Cleveland—of catching them.